I've been the token brown woman in adland but it's time to speak up
A view from Nell Bhadresha

I've been the token brown woman in adland but it's time to speak up

Imagine walking into a room where you are the only non-white person. It is time for agencies to do more to foster racial inclusivity.

As a person of colour in the overwhelmingly white advertising industry, one of the first things I notice when I start at a new place as a freelancer is whether I will be the token ethnic-minority person within the team, department or agency.

Not long ago, I freelanced at a small, indie agency where the people were genuinely nice and there was a hunger to make exciting work. There was just one problem: I was one of only two people who were from a black, Asian or minority-ethnic background. Ninety-five per cent of the staff were white, which increased to 97% once my contract was over and I left.

I rationalised to myself that this agency was small and they were actively making new hires. Surely, the founders were aware of the almost entirely Caucasian make-up of their staff and the need to create a more racially inclusive workplace?

I asked to see the agency’s three-year plan to understand their long-term vision and criteria for success. It included all the usual factors: growth, financial success, desirable clients etc. But nowhere did I see any ambition to make the workplace more racially inclusive. 

I started to become acutely aware of things that didn’t sit well with me. All of the clients were white; the management team would include racially insensitive GIFs in internal decks to appear "with it", but actually came off ignorant and boorish; and scripts were written with no mention of a woman. There was no-one I could talk to about this and I didn’t feel comfortable expressing my ire to my white colleagues.

A flurry of new starter emails were sent; the agency was bolstering up and I was keen to meet the newbies. Yet all of these new hires were white. Not only were they white, but they were also reflections of the founders themselves: middle-class and private school or Oxbridge educated. 

The lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity became apparent at this agency. The ideas, the work and the conversations felt homogenous. This place had no idea how to speak to a consumer base broader than the Waitrose demographic. And if your business is built on creating disruptive, poignant and culturally impactful communications that speaks to a multicultural society, this agency was desperately failing.

As the months went on, I started composing the email that I would eventually send to the founders. I kept my points succinct: I was disappointed that I was one of only two non-white people at an agency of more than 35 and that there was no mention of how to address racial inclusivity in the three-year plan. I also recommended organisations that could help with creating a workplace that welcomes all. The day arrived and I hit send on the email. 

I felt nervous because I’ve never called out an agency for its lack of racial equality before. But as a minority in this industry, I felt a duty to speak out. 

Then came the tepid response, which I received within an hour. It felt as if proper thought hadn’t gone into the reply and it came across as a knee-jerk response to an email that may have made the founders feel uncomfortable. They said that they were aware of the overwhelmingly white staff make-up and that they were working with youth programmes and partnerships to make the agency a better place.

Yet there was no mention of a concrete plan to make the agency more diverse and no metrics to monitor progress. After building the courage to call out a glaringly obvious issue, I was let down by the lacklustre response.

I went to a talk by Cindy Gallop once where I learned that one of her key principles in business is to say what you think. She encourages this because we are hired for our brains, unique perspectives and ideas. Saying what we think is also a helpful filter; if the reaction is negative or abusive, you don’t want to work for those people anyway. 

During the Q&A, I told Cindy about this particular situation and sought her counsel. She encouraged the audience to call out workplaces that are racially imbalanced and, most importantly, to keep sharing these stories.

And I urge you to do the same. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of courage, but people need to hear it. Unless we call them out, they will continue to live in their insulated bubbles. 

These are some brilliant organisations that work to help workplaces become more inclusive, to name just a few:

  • Challenge Consultancy helps bring a better understanding of equality, diversity and inclusion to the workplace.
  • Creative Mentor Network supports young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds into careers in the creative industries.
  • Creative Equals passionately believes in equality and diversity, and offers a plethora of tools to achieve this.
  • Also follow the Advertising Accountability Instagram account, which shares people’s stories of systemic racism in the creative industry.

I have been in the advertising game for a long time, so I have grown thick enough skin to know that I have a seat at the table, irrespective of my race. But what about those coming in at entry level who aren’t white, who haven’t found their voice yet and who walk into an agency of predominantly white people? Chances are they will feel marginalised and develop a sense of not belonging. 

This is why we need to speak out. It is time we hold agencies, production partners and clients accountable. For agencies similar to the one I’ve described, it is time to do more.

Nell Bhadresha is a freelance senior account director